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Reflecting on the Year of Reflection

2015-December 23
by Tracy Sawicki, Executive Director

"2015 will be the year of reflection." I announced to the staff at the end of last year.  I made the same statement to the Trustees shortly after. We were well into the implementation of our Strategic Plan and we would receive our Grantee Perception Report in February. The timing seemed right. I don't want you to think we haven't been looking to improve our practice at the Foundation all along. We have. Then why declare a year of reflection you ask?  Simply put, we need to do it with much more regularity and intention.

The reflective process is so important for learning and improvement. Most of us know this, yet we still stumble to make it a part of our work.  The Foundation is no different than most organizations in this respect. We knew we had to be vigilant if we took this on and were going to be successful. We were acutely aware of the numerous distractions that often derail these efforts. So, with the support of the Trustees, we made this a priority and committed to the effort. The Year of Reflection moved from a nice idea to a formal goal. A good move for sure. 

2015 has been a very productive year for The Foundation. We accomplished our goals and there were several bright spots. (I will highlight these in a separate blog.) As for the Year of Reflection specifically, on a scale of one to ten, I give us a six. We got a little distracted. There was the day-to-day work. Enough said. Opportunity knocked and it couldn't wait. We had a few of these. And, believe it or not, we created a few distractions all on our own, with one resulting in some of the Foundation's best work to date.  I know. I know. We said we were going to be vigilant and deliberate, and would guard against distractions. Actually, we were. If we hadn't been, we would not have done any of this work and our score would have been zero. 

Overall, I am pleased with our efforts this year. Board and staff made sure we found the time to engage in reflection throughout the year. We kept our commitment despite the numerous distractions and disruptions that came our way. We looked at various dimensions of the Foundation during Trustee meetings, staff meetings, retreats and supervision sessions. We learned quite a bit and are using it to inform our work going forward. A specific example is the examination of our work with Grantees by way of a Grantee Perception Report.

The Grantee Perception Report provided the Foundation with significant insights from our grantees. The data was rich. We spent time reviewing and interpreting the results with the Board. The staff spent additional time culling the results, looking for areas needing additional attention.

Our results were very strong. Yet, there was one area that gave us pause; Tower applicants spent significantly more time on the application process than the comparison group.  What did this really mean? We weren't certain. Although time consuming, our grantees indicated they highly valued the program officer feedback and input throughout the application process. Many stating their final product had improved greatly as a result. Staff is analyzing our application process to see if we can streamline it further without compromising what grantees found most beneficial.

The Reflective process does not have a prescribed dosage. It can be quick. It can take months. It may need to be delayed. We experienced this first-hand. Case in point. The Strengthening Partners portfolio is where we allocate funding for capacity building initiatives. Last year, the Board's Long Range Planning Committee wanted a better understanding how funding colleagues defined and supported this work, and how the Foundation's current funding strategies fit into the landscape. Were they relevant? Were they duplicative? Were they making any difference in supporting the Foundation's mission? Should we do something different?  Once we started asking questions, we quickly realized we did not have enough information to answer them. So, we went and got it.

Earlier this month, the Foundation completed its Capacity Building Environmental Scan, focusing on Tower's funding geography. Megan MacDavey, our newest program officer, conducted the scan and authored the report. It required 12 months to complete, and was well worth the wait. (Megan is writing a blog series about this work for 2016.) At our December Board meeting, Megan presented it to the Board. We spent lots of time discussing the findings. We also reviewed and analyzed the Foundation's grantmaking history in this area, leading to an exercise letting us see the Foundation's funding evolution in a visual, life-sized format. This was the springboard to future reflection about our work in capacity building.

Our decision to delay the reflective process was absolutely the right one in this case. While we could have tried to start it earlier, I believe it would not have been as effective and that we are much further ahead because we waited.

The official Year of Reflection is coming to a close, but not this effort. The Year of Reflection reinforced the importance of reflective practice. We are learning how to do this work, our practice is taking shape, and are committed to doing more in 2016 despite the distraction at the door.    


Photo Attribution:  "New Mirrored Infinity Room Immerses Viewers in Mesmerizing World of
Endless Reflections" by Jenny Zhang | Photo source: Stephen Friedman Gallery

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